Awa Puna is a transgender student from the Kapiti Coast who has begun her transition from male to female. In the documentary Born This Way: Awa's Story, she tells of becoming her authentic self.
Now aged 18, and a student at Toi Whakaari NZ Drama School, Awa says the stories she would write as a child were all about not fitting in, being different and an outcast.
Her mother, Caroline Beaufort-Puna, was also aware from very early on that Awa thought and felt very differently to her three sons.
“And I just accepted that – I used to talk to her a lot about “I’d love you if you were a tree, I’d love you if you were blue, I’d love you if you were alien … always saying it’s the love that counts more than anything.”
Awa started high school – hating the boy’s uniform – and at 13 went to a doctor as a sense of panic at puberty started to feel overwhelming.
“I felt like something was taking over me that wasn’t me.
“I wanted to find a way to express the way I wanted to be.”
Caroline says Awa was in a pretty desperate place.
“One thing she said to me is ‘If I have to live another day in this body I don’t want to live’.” Faced with that desperation in a child they love, the only thing for a parent to do is to get on board and help, she says.
Because Awa was so young, she had to go through a rigorous process before being allowed hormone treatment, including getting a psychologist’s report.
But telling people she was transgender didn’t happen at the time of her choosing – someone hacked into her Facebook account and changed her profile.
“I trusted that person. That was the only person I’d told apart from my mother and the doctor … I felt betrayed,” Awa says. But in a way she thanks the person “because it meant I had to own it.”
And the comments posted by people in the school were hugely supportive. “This person had written a post and there were all these comments saying amazing things… The heart was there.”
Even so she found it hard to tell everyone face to face, and instead posted a YouTube video explaining her transition.
When Awa began hormone treatment in 2014, her transformation from an “angry, awkward boy” into a more confident person was immediate, Caroline says.
“Her back straightened up, she started to walk taller, she just looked beautiful.”
The documentary follows Awa on a visit to her father’s iwi, and her grandfather talks about why it took a while for him to gain an understanding.
“He came to the acceptance and said he was proud”, Caroline says.
Awa is herself a film maker, winning awards at the 2015 NZ student film festival, and was named the most inspiring young person of the year at the Wellington Pride Awards the same year. Her YouTube channel, where she’s continued to document her experiences, has had thousands of views.
Born this Way: Awa’s Story is screening in the Doc Edge festival on 16 May in Wellington and 1 June in Auckland.